Ending months of wrangling between treasury benches and the opposition, the Lok Sabha on Wednesday passed the civil nuclear liability bill after government dropped the contentious provision of 'intent' in the case of accident adopting a Bharatiya Janata Party amendment, paving the way for nuclear commerce with the world.
The Civil Liability for the Nuclear Damages Bill, 2010 was adopted by the House by a voice vote after it rejected a Communist Party of India-Marxist amendment that sought to fix the liability cap on suppliers in case of accidents at Rs 10,000 crore instead of the Rs 1,500 crore proposed in the measure.
The House nod came not before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a spirited intervention in the four-hour long debate rejecting allegations that the bill was brought to advance the interests of the United States and its corporations.
He described the measure as a completion of journey to end apartheid against India in the field of atomic power. The CPI-M amendment was negatived in a division pressed by its Parliamentary Party leader Basudeb Acharia with 252 voting against and 25 voting for it.
A total of 18 official amendments were adopted by the House including the one the rephrased clause 17(b) which read 'the nuclear incident has resulted as a consequence of an act of supplier or his employee, which includes supply of equipment of material with patent or latent defects or sub-standard services.'
The BJP's support, which was articulated by senior member Jaswant Singh, came after the official amendment reflected the formulation of the amendment proposed by him.
The bill, which was studied in depth by a Parliamentary Standing Committee, is necessary for full implementation of the civil nuclear deal signed with the United States in 2006.
In his brief intervention, Singh asserted that atomic power was the 'viable' option which could not be ignored and the legislation would enable India to widen this option by undertaking nuclear commerce with the world.
Moving the bill and later in his reply, Minister of State in the PMO, Prithviraj Chavan said the government had sought to evolve a broad consensus on the legislation by trying to take on board the views of Opposition parties.
The amended Clause 17(b) now does not have the word 'intent' with regard to suppliers or their employees in causing an accident in a nuclear plant, a provision that was strongly objected to by BJP and Left parties which felt it was aimed at diluting the suppliers liability.
Significantly, the language of the official amendment to Clause 17 (b) now matches the amendment moved by BJP leader Jaswant Singh. Left leaders had also submitted amendments to the same clause but did not press them.
Chavan said the compensation cap to be paid by the operator at Rs 1500 crore as provided in the bill was not the 'limit,' as overall compensation would be the decision of the Claims Commissioner.
"Compensation is unlimited. Whatever compensation will be decided by the Claims Commissioner and he (operator) will have to pay it," Chavan said adding that the limit on compensation was only to enable the operator take insurance cover.
The debate also witnessed unusual bonhomie between the ruling coalition and the BJP with members praising each other's governments.
The prime minister noted that the process for having civil nuclear deal with the US was initiated by the Vajpayee government.
The government dropped the word 'intent' and rephrased clause 17(b) after intense negotiations with the opposition including a couple of meetings convened by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to break the deadlock.
The original version of the amendment had come under sharp attack from the BJP and Left parties as it provided for proving the 'intent' of a supplier of causing an accident if an operator were to claim compensation.
The parties had contended that it was impossible to prove an intent on the part of suppliers or their employees in case of an accident. The controversial word 'intent' found its mention in an earlier government amendment, which was different from the one recommended by the Parliamentary Committee that examined the bill.
On allegations that the bill was aimed at benefiting US companies, Singh said, "To say that this is being done to promote American interest and to help American corporation, I think, is far from the truth."
He said such charges against him were not new as he had faced these even in 1992 when he presented the budget as the then finance minister. Pointing to senior BJP leader L K Advani, Singh said he was aware of it and added the whole opposition, with a few exceptions, demanded his impeachment claiming that the budget had been prepared in the US.
"To say we have anyway compromised India's national interest will be a travesty of facts," Singh said apparently addressing the Left parties which have alleged that the bill had been drafted to suit American companies.
"History will be the judge," the prime minister said as he pointed to the economic reforms initiated in 1991 when he was the finance minister. "I leave with the people of this country to judge. It is with this very motivation that our government has tried to complete the journey towards ending the regime of nuclear apartheid," he said.
Chavan also justified the addition of Clause 7, which provides for government assuming 'full liability' for a nuclear installation not operated by it if it is of the opinion that it is necessary in public interest.
This is aimed at taking insurance cover for a nuclear installation. He said that the raise in the compensation cap from Rs 500 crore to Rs 1,500 crore matches a similar provision in the US.
Making a case for nuclear power, Chavan said though coal and hydro power plants were important options nuclear energy cannot be ignored.
While hydel projects caused great displacements, coal was a dirty fuel considering its impact on the environment and contribution to global warming.